Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Oysters & Down East Chowder: A Wintery Maine Dinner Party

Chowdah on a Snowy Day.
When we moved to Maine last year, one of the things I most anticipated and dreaded was the long, hard snowy winters of New England.  On the one hand, having just left the comfort of Abu Dhabi's winter desert - balmy 80-degree days with sunshine all throughout - I dreaded the idea of having to pull out the old winter wardrobe and dress Roman in layers.  On the other hand, I was desperate for some seasonal change - living in permanent summer is not all it's cracked up to be - and could not wait for the chance to ski, snowshoe, sled and generally frolic in the fluffy white snow with Roman.  With the passage of summer and the entrance of Autumn, I went slowly but surely from dread to full anticipation.  And by the time December came, I was all-out praying that we'd have a white Christmas in Connecticut at my in-laws.  But we didn't.

And in fact, apart from one or two snows over a month ago, we haven't had almost any snow at all!  I tried to go cross-country skiing 4-5 weekends in a row, with no luck.  Everyone here in Portland is already talking of "spring fever" while I've been sitting at home practically cursing the gods over their Invernal (and infernal) leniency.  With March quickly approaching, and talk of Easter buzzing, I had all but given up on my dream Maine winter.  And then the unthinkable happened: Matt turned 30.  And hell froze over. :)

We woke up to a beautiful blanket of white on the first day of March.  It didn't stop snowing for nearly 12 hours straight, and it stuck (we even made it to Harris farm for some long-awaited Cross Country skiing - but more on that in another post). The next day, we had a surprise dinner guest and so I thought, why not have two of my favorite Maine foods to celebrate the occasion?  Oysters and Down East Haddock Chowder, it was.  With two types of oysters (Wellfleets & Beau Soleils bought at Harbor Fish Market) and two types of homemade mignonette to compliment them (plain and spicy-cilantro), the best baguette in Portland (from The Standard Baking Co.), and some Avocado "butter" to spread on it, it was going to be a feast truly worthy of a cozy Maine winter's evening, and a truly easy impromptu dinner party.

Why are these two of my favorite Maine foods?  Here are my top 5 reasons, in list form.

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Top 5 Reasons to Eat Oysters & Chowder in Maine
in copious amounts and various forms

5. They're Local.
I love that Maine is so into promoting its local culture, local foods, local businesses.  I love being able to buy an entire meal that is sourced locally - it's kind of a cool feeling and the food generally does tend to be fresher. 

There are an abundance of local (Maine-grown) oysters: I love JP Shellfish's website for their no-nonsense overview of the best Maine has to offer.  They give tips on salinity, size, meatiness, "clean-ness," and availability.  Wellfleets are not Maine oysters (they come from Cape Cod, so close enough), but Beau Soleils are.  And so are my favorite oysters of all time: Bagaduces.  Word has it they're Thomas Keller's favorites too.  Good enough for me!

Chowder is as ubiquitous here in New England as Gumbo in Louisiana.  There are lots of different variations, but the one I discovered by accident at a Mainer's house is one of my favorites.  It is a milk-based (not cream!) haddock (not clam!) chowdah.  Easy, no-fuss, no-frills - like the Mainers.  And it's basically a dream because the longer it sits and "matures," the better it tastes.  Recipe below.

4. They're Green.
Haddock, which is what Mainers generally use in their chowder, is a totally sustainably harvested fish.  It is in great abundance here in Maine and therefore always available and usually relatively fresh.

I'm not usually one to harp on matters of the environment because I hate people who shove their opinions and life-views down your throat, but I will say that overfishing is something that bothers me, because of the impact it has on all the other naturally dependent species and ecosystems within that particular ocean / lake / river. So, while I'm not 100% great about only buying sustainably harvested fish, when I can, I do!

Oysters here in Maine are plentiful and varied. And the great thing about the frigid, frigid North Atlantic waters of Maine is that they are available and at peak almost ALL year long (rather than just in the fall / winter months as is usually the case).

3. They're Kid Friendly (at least the chowder).
The reason I even found out about this recipe is entirely due to Roman's willingness to eat it. We were visiting a friend's friend's house and the pizza we had ordered was taking forever. Roman was ready to gnaw either my or his arm off, so when the host started feeding his 1 year-old I begged for a little of whatever she was having for Roman. It turned out to be this chowder, and he slurped it down, as did the 1 year-old.  And he has happily eaten it every time I've made it since.  His wife is a native Mainer and it was the kind of chowder she grew up with - he admitted to adding Thyme and bacon, which is apparently slightly avant-garde as far as the purists are concerned.

He also told me that they often give their children plain yoghurt with maple syrup drizzled over. What a totally Maine thing! I left with two new New England-y, child-friendly food options. Great. :) 

2. They're Super Down East.
So, I never quite understood what people were talking about when they threw the term "Down East" around.  Technically it refers to the coast of Maine from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border but colloquially it's a term of cultural pride and territorial nature, and it's very Maine.  True to having a special term just for "things Maine," Mainers are kind of, well -for lack of a better word - "exclusive" as a group. Not that they're pretentious or uppity but they're not really into "new neighbors" or "new friends."  "If you're not from here, you never will be a Mainer," said my son's preschool teacher in reference to her non-Mainer husband, only half-jokingly.  Not only do they stick together they also love to enjoy Maine-things.  And chowder and oysters are definitely two of them - so I eat them. Because I have to feel a part of Maine somehow!

1. They're Truly Delish.
 All kidding aside, I do love these two foods. The chowder is awesome and super comforting, but to me the oysters of Maine (and New England in general) are something approaching food-perfection. So good. So fresh. And so natural.  I'm including a recipe for one of my favorite mignonettes to serve with raw oysters as well as the recipe for Down East Haddock Chowder. Enjoy!

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Down East Haddock Chowder
of the mostly-traditional persuasion

Serves 4-5

So my unorthodox additions to this chowder are the shrimp and the bacon. I love the contrast of textures (and I also love shrimp). Still, though, I'd consider this true-blue Down East chowder, because I got the recipe from a Mainer, but then I'm not purist.  If you're really hardcore you'll leave out the clam juice altogether and just do it with milk and water. This chowder is watery by nature - please don't go into this expecting New England Clam Chowder consistency or you'll feel jipped. :)

1 1/2 lbs Haddock fillets, whole
12-15 large shrimp, peeled, de-veined and sliced in half lengthwise
6-8 slices of bacon
2 cups clam juice or fish stock
2 cups whole milk
2 cups water
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 cups (~2 large) potatoes, diced
1 tsp dried thyme or 1 tbsp fresh thyme
salt & pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp canola oil

1. In a dutch oven or large pot fry the bacon in the canola oil until crisp.  Remove to drain on paper towels, and leave the bacon grease in the pot. When cool, chop the bacon into small bits and place in a bowl for garnishing the chowder.

2. To the bacon grease add the onions and celery and cook until softened over medium-high heat. 

3. Add the potatoes, clam juice, water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat and allow the soup to simmer, covered, until the potatoes are cooked (15 minutes).

4. Add the milk and thyme. Put the fish into the pot, then cover the pot and turn the heat to low (or even turn it off, if you're daring!), leaving it to poach for 15 minutes or so. 

5. Using a wooden spoon, gently break the cooked fish apart in the chowder, leaving large chunks (or to your preference). Then add the shrimp and allow them to poach for a further 5-7 minutes. They should just be cooked through.  Taste the chowder and adjust salt & pepper.

6. Uncover and allow the soup to cool completely. Then refrigerate for at least 4 hours but overnight is best. This soup really does taste better the next day! Garnish with bacon bits and serve with crusty bread.

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Brenda's Mexican Mignonette
 Serve with cold, freshly shucked bagaduces or beau soleils

This recipe is inspired by the mignonette we had at the Front Room, a fantastic and low-key restaurant on Munjoy Hill, Portland, that serves excellent American-style food. I believe theirs was made with champagne vinegar (which seems to be the "it" thing for mignonettes here in Portland) but it's really the cilantro that makes this unique. A perfect pairing with oysters or clams.


1/2 shallot, chopped finely
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
1/2 chile Serrano (or Jalapeno if you're a wuss), chopped finely
salt & pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and refrigerate. Mignonette tastes even better after it's been sitting in the fridge for several hours or even overnight.

Serve with a small spoon for pouring over oysters on the half-shell.
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